Mark Twain admits to setting a wildland fire at Lake Tahoe

lake tahoe beach and mountains

Lake Tahoe used to be known as Lake Bigler. Mark Twain preferred the name “Lake Bigler.”

When young Samuel Clemens first came to the Nevada Territory in 1861, he thought he would be given an easy office job assisting his brother, Orion, who had been named by President Lincoln to be the first and only Territorial Secretary for Nevada. When young Sam learned there was no money available to pay an assistant for his brother, he decided to search for some other means of earning an easy living. He noticed that there was a growing demand for lumber and firewood due to the  booming mining industry in the region. In September, 1861, Sam and a friend named John Kinney decided to hike to Lake Tahoe to stake out a timber claim in hopes of becoming timber barons.

In 1874, after Sam became famous as Mark Twain, he wrote his account of this adventure in Roughing It. At the time of Twain’s lumber baron venture, Lake Tahoe was known as Lake Bigler. Very few of the landmarks Twain described in the book had names we would recognize today. There were only descriptions of topographic features and some highly exaggerated estimations of mountain elevations. Also, Twain was writing from memory about things that had happened thirteen years previously.

Several subsequent researchers have attempted to determine the route taken by Twain and Kinney to the lumber camp and determine its exact location. As usually happens with Twain’s writing, historical accuracy is often sacrificed for humor and the creation of an interesting story. Having worked for over eight years at Glenbrook and navigated my own boat along the east and north shores of Lake Tahoe, I feel I can easily trace the route taken and where the camp was located by the descriptions given in the Roughing It account. My interpretation places the camp on the east shore of the lake, and other authors surmise it was on the north shore. Regardless, the story remains basically the same.

It appears to me that the pair hiked up a route that followed close to modern U.S. Hwy. 50 over Spooner Summit and down to the Glenbrook Area. When they reached the lakeshore, they found an abandoned skiff and used it to row around what is now known as Deadman Point to a place known as Skunk Harbor, a distance of three miles. There they discovered the timber claim that had been staked out by Territorial Governor James Nye and his brother, John. Twain and Kinney knew of these men and their associates and referred to them as “The Irish Brigade.”

The wannabe timber barons spent the night at the Nye camp and helped themselves to some supplies they found stashed away in storage. They then rowed the skiff another three miles north to a place now known as Secret Harbor and set up a camp of their own. Twain and Kinney set about marking the perimeter of an area of 300 acres and pinning “Notices” on trees. They cut down six trees and let them fall along the boundary to indicate the extent of the claim. Since law required a cabin be built, they constructed a brush lean-to as a shelter.

In Twain’s own words, he describes how he avoided any strenuous activity, delegating the rowing of the skiff and anything requiring any effort to Kinney. The remainder of their stay at the camp was spent loafing, playing cards, fishing and enjoying the serene beauty of Lake Tahoe. They floated in the skiff and admired the fishes and underwater features through the pristine crystal clear waters that made them feel as if they were floating in a balloon. Their most strenuous activities involved smoking their pipes, reading dog-eared novels and occasionally rowing over to the camp of the Irish Brigade to raid their cache of supplies.

Upon return from one of their “shopping” trips, Mark Twain built a fire for their evening meal while John carried the provisions to the lean-to house. Mark went back to the skiff to fetch the frying pan when John shouted that the fire had escaped the fire pit into the dry pine needles and brush. Within a few minutes the escaping camp fire consumed the lean-to house, the provisions and all the furnishings of their beautiful lakeside home. It raged through the brush, slash and pine needles and began consuming some of the huge old dead standing trees.

The pair watched helplessly as the fire raged on over the mountains and from one ridge to another in crimson spirals as far as the eye could see. They were spellbound by the spectacle and the roaring, crackling inferno they were witnessing. From a position alongside the skiff, they marveled at the beauty of the flames and the “bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye and held it with stronger fascination.”

And so, after just two or three weeks of “working their claim” on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the timber baron phase of Twain’s experience in Nevada Territory came to a flaming end. The pair never sold a single log and they never even filed the timber claim at the recorder’s office. Twain and Kinney returned to Carson City the next day after eating up the rest of the provisions from the stash of the Irish Brigade. Upon their return, Twain told the Brigade about raiding their supplies and asked forgiveness. It was granted, only upon payment of damages.

Since operating a logging and timber operation did not seem to be a vocation suited to Twain’s aptitude, he contemplated something more appropriate, such as prospecting, for example. Sooner or later, he would find his niche in the History of the Comstock and America.

Still plenty of room at John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

There’s still room to sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26. My team and I will be cooking a delicious Dutch-oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler. This should an amazing and educational event, and definitely lots of fun.

Signup information is below, as well as links to media stories with further details. Be sure to help spread the word!

Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda

Sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

2014 is the Sesquicentennial year of Nevada Statehood. I can still remember celebrating the Centennial year in 1964 when I grew my one and only beard in celebration of the event. Now, it is the 150th birthday of Nevada, and I will celebrate it by growing a set of gray sideburns and cooking a dutch oven lunch for 80 people at Mills Park in Carson City on July 25th. To celebrate the event, the Nevada State Museum where I am a volunteer tour guide and part-time cook, is presenting a John C. Fremont Symposium.

One of the many events of this two-day extravaganza is a lunch like western explorer John C. Fremont may have had along the trail in 1844 when he entered our own area here in the Great Basin. I would really like to meet all those of you who read my History of the Comstock column and serve you a delicious Dutch oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler.

My team and I have seasoned up about 20 Dutch ovens and are raring to serve you the greatest frontier grub this side of the Oregon Trail. Fremont’s crew used Dutch ovens for cooking on their 1843-1844 expedition through western Nevada where he discovered Pyramid Lake, Truckee River, Carson River, Lake Tahoe and disproved the myth of the legendary Buenaventura River thought to drain the Great Basin to the Pacific Ocean.

For those of you who may not know, the elusive Fremont Cannon that he abandoned along a deep creek near the West Walker River has been found. The Fremont Cannon Recovery Team found three of the cannon carriage iron wheels and the cannon mounting hardware from one side of the cannon carriage after an exhaustive search lasting several years.

It also appears the bronze 1835 Cyrus Alger cannon barrel long in possession of the Nevada State Museum is likely the same one that had been abandoned in the canyon, and was re-discovered in the mid-1800’s. It was then possibly sold where it made the rounds of several locations in western Nevada including Virginia City and Glenbrook at Lake Tahoe. Everywhere it traveled, it was referred to as the Fremont Cannon. When John C. Fremont visited Virginia City in the 1870s, he was shown the bronze barrel and identified it as the one he had abandoned in the winter of 1844.

The John C. Fremont Symposium to be held July 25th and 26th is a gathering of top Fremont scholars, archaeologists and authors from around the world, offering two days of lectures and panel discussions at the museum. You will be able to meet and talk to the members of the Fremont Howitzer Recovery Team and cannon experts who will tell about the amazing discovery of these artifacts.

Two special galleries have been set up at the Museum to contain the many artifacts and photographs from the Fremont Expedition. These include Fremont’s presidential campaign flag, maps drawn by cartographer, Charles Preuss, The original cannon carriage parts discovered near the Walker River, and a replica vintage cannon carriage with the bronze Fremont cannon mounted on it. Many of the original surveying instruments and equipment used on the expedition are shown, including the remains of a Dutch oven found at one of Fremont’s camp sites in Oregon.

Breakfast of coffee, tea and pastries will be served each day. The Dutch oven lunch that I will be serving at Mills Park will be at noon on the 25th. We are trying to arrange for a surprise presentation of some cannons firing blanks following lunch. On the 26th, the festivities extend into the evening hours with a theatrical presentation by actor Alastair Jaques in the Nevada Room at the Governor’s Mansion. This will be followed by a catered dinner at the mansion and songs of Nevada and Cowboy Poetry by Richard Elloyan, singer and songwriter, raised in Virginia City.

And now, what will all this cost? When you consider all the meals, outstanding speakers, and a chance to meet your favorite historian, (Me), the Symposium is a bargain at just $100 per person. For $40 you can attend just the dinner and entertainment at the Governor’s Mansion on the 26th. Call soon to make your reservations, since there is a limit of just 80 participants. Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

See you there.

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Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda